by Bill Herd
When you visit a National Park, the proper question to ask the ranger at the information desk is “What should I see and how do I do it?” If you were to ask how to get to a specific attraction, the ranger will tell you but it may not be the best place for you to go or the most productive use of your time. So give the ranger a chance to share his/her knowledge with you. Next, the ranger will ask you how much time you have to spend in the park.
Only about 10 percent of the people who visit Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore stay overnight inside the park at one of the campgrounds and will be around for a few days or more. Many stay at a cottage in the local community and may come into the park a couple of times during their vacation. But by far the great majority of visitors are from outside the immediate area and will only spend one day at the National Lakeshore.
So what should those folks who have only one day do with their limited time in the park? You can’t do nearly everything, but if you use your time wisely, come early and stay till sunset, you can experience many of the features that make the National Lakeshore so special.
Nearly every article or guide to the Lakeshore will suggest that you begin with the Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive, especially if you have limited time. The scenic drive is a seven-mile, one-way, paved road through the forest and dunes with boardwalks and overlooks. In my opinion, that is the wrong place to begin especially if you have limited time. Sure you will see more scenery but it will not have the same impact as actually getting into the dune environment. I suggest that you start at the Dune Climb.
As a park ranger, it was always frustrating to me to hear parents decide to go on the scenic drive because the kids will see more, or because the dune is too high for their kids to reach the top, even after explaining to them the difference between the scenic drive and the dune climb. So what if the kids only get halfway up. The Dune Climb is 130 feet high. Imagine a 65-foot high sand box-what kid wouldn’t want to play in that? But its not just kids who have fun on the Dune Climb, its teenagers, college kids, parents, even senior citizens. Just remember it’s not a competition; just go at you own pace Getting to the top is not the point. The point is to have fun with a huge pile of fine, clean sand that nature has put there. You may not see as much of the Sleeping Bear Dunes but you will keep it in your memory and in your heart longer than by viewing more of it from a boardwalk and paved overlooks.
Now this is important, tell your group not to go so far that they cannot see your vehicle. You will wave when it is time to come down. At the Dune Climb there is always the impulse to see if Lake Michigan is just over the next dune. Hikers get lured into long unplanned treks. It’s a mile and a half across the dunes to Lake Michigan over five big hills. It is a great hike if you are prepared with food, water, sunscreen and three hours but it is not for your group today. Make plans to return another time for that adventure. Today, you might spend as little as a half hour or a couple of hours on the Dune Climb depending on how much time you have and how hot the sand is.
Now is it time for the scenic drive? No, not yet. Remember I am planning to pack as much as possible into your one-day visit to Sleeping Bear so it is going to be a long day. We’ll go to the scenic drive later and be there for the sunset. Hopefully you have packed a lunch that you can eat anytime along the way. If not, head into Glen Arbor to grab some quick food but not a sit down meal. That will take too long but you’ll get there later for dinner.
Okay, if your family or group got an early start you get a bonus activity others may not have time for on their one-day visit. For many years I have said, “If you can only hike one trail in the National Lakeshore make it the Sleeping Bear Point Trail (No. 9 on the park map, which describes the hike as strenuous, but we are only doing the first quarter). After a short hike up a hill about as high as the dune climb but not nearly as hard (because it is gradual and you do not slip back with each step), you come to one of my favorite places in the Lakeshore. Atop the dune at Sleeping Bear Point you are in the most rapidly moving and changing dune area in the park. Here only the most hardy dune plants survive the harsh conditions because the Point catches wind from every quarter. Around you are areas so frequently blasted by the wind that no plant can survive and only wind-sculptured sand occupies the space. From this vantage point you can see most of the elements that define the character of the National Lakeshore. In addition to the sand dune at your bare feet, you see a ghost forest, the deep blue water of Lake Michigan and the emerald Manitou Island of legend seven miles off shore.
With lighthouse and Morazan shipwreck on South Manitou, the North Manitou crib lighthouse and the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station just visible through the treetop behind you, recall the rich maritime history of the Manitou Passage. Across the aqua-colored water of Sleeping Bear Bay you see the forest and open fields of the Port Oneida Rural Historic District, and along the water’s edge, a strip of sandy beach stretching for miles. On another visit you can complete the loop trail past Devils Hole but for your one-day visit enjoy the view and dunes then return back to your car the way you came. Good news, its all down hill.
If the day is hot, next, you will want to head to a Lake Michigan beach next, but first check the time. I want you to visit both the Glen Haven Historic Village and the Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Station Museum. For a quick visit you will need an hour and a half and they close at 5 PM. The beach is always open so plan your time accordingly. The good thing is that they are all right together. You can break up your museum tour with a little beach time at either location. The beach at the museum and the village are as nice as any in the Lakeshore, and both have modern restroom facilities. The Glen Haven restrooms even have benches and hooks for changing into to your bathing suit.
The Sleeping Bear Point Coast Guard Stations Life-Saving Museum has exhibits about local shipwrecks and rescues. The station was one of three Life-Saving Service Stations that guarded the Manitou passage. The Coast Guard was called the Life-Saving Service before 1916. A highlight of the museum is the boathouse that contains all the rescue boats and equipment just as it would have been in 1902 when the station opened. Glen Haven is one of the best surviving examples of a Great Lakes village. While there, watch the blacksmith, visit the boat museum and shop at the general store.
After that you may be hungry, so head the car towards Glen Arbor or Empire for a leisurely sit-down dinner. After dinner check the time again. You will want to enter the Scenic Drive about an hour before sunset. If you have a little time to spare, you could take a drive through the Port Oneida Rural Historic District five miles north of Glen Arbor, or you could go to the beach on Little Glen Lake across from the Dune Climb, or maybe back to Lake Michigan beach in Glen Haven. Each of these spots is calm and relaxing in the early hour of evening.
When you enter the scenic drive, get the booklet that describes the features. One person can read aloud and act as tour guide. When you exit there is a sign that reads “Return Brochure Here.” It should read “Return Brochure Here if you do not wish to keep it.” I can guarantee you that you are welcome to keep the booklet if you wish. (I will work on getting the sign corrected.) There is a new service this year. You can use your cell phone to hear a message about the view you are seeing from the overlooks. Look for the information along the drive. Get out at each of the overlooks. Hopefully by now everyone in your group is too tired by the events of the day to be tempted to go down the steep bluff at the Lake Michigan overlook. If someone is still considering it, lock him or her in the car! The climb back up makes the Dune Climb seem like a mole hill and you could be there for hours waiting for their return.
Enjoy the sunset over Lake Michigan and the pink glow of the dune sand. Congratulate yourself. By carefully planning your one-day visit to the National Lakeshore you have experienced six (and maybe seven) of my top ten things to do at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.